Do you love me?
In the Musical 'Fiddler on the Roof', Tevye the milkman has to marry off his three daughters. His dilemma is whether the marriages should be arranged by him as tradition dictates or that they choose their own partners. With his second daughter, he gives in to her choice when he sees that although her suitor has no prospects, she loves him, which prompts him to ask his wife, ‘Do you love me?’ Golde, the industrious Jewish wife is cooking the dinner and has no time for his foolish questioning. But he asks repeatedly ‘do you love me?’ and she responds:
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
She does not see the need for the question.Golde is irritated by his questioning.
Jesus asks Peter three times : ‘Do you love me?’ and Peter is offended by the questioning, he is upset.
‘Do you love me more than these?’ Jesus asks first. It is not clear to what Jesus refers by the word, ‘these’ despite the fact that the translators of the Jerusalem version of the Bible have inferred that the question should be ‘do you love me than these others do?’ Is Jesus asking that or perhaps ‘do you love me more than this fishing boat, this net and these fish?’. Peter and the other disciples have returned to their former occupation. They had left everything and followed Jesus, but now they have reverted to them, as if there was nothing else to do. Is Jesus asking Peter, ‘do you love your previous life more than the new life I have given you?'
The questioning may be hurtful, but it is necessary, as Peter had failed Jesus by denying him. At the first miraculous catch, Peter had told Jesus to leave him, for he was a sinful man. That sinfulness had later manifested itself in his weakness and cowardliness in denying that he knew Jesus when challenged.
But Jesus needed Peter, he needed him to hold the fledgling church together to carry on the work which he had begun. At the beginning of St John's Gospel, after Andrew had brought his brother to Jesus, the Lord had said, ‘you are Simon, but you will be called Peter you will be regarded as the Rock.’ Indeed after Peter acclaimed Jesus as the Christ, Jesus then said 'now you are Peter, now you are the rock on which I will build my church.'
Peter is indeed the rock as he stands firm before the Sanhedrin, the Council of Jewish elders. He had to put his higher obligation to God, to speak about Jesus above the worldly obligation to obey the religious rulers. There was no doubt now about his love for Jesus and no need for the question to be asked again.
Tevye was not satisfied with Golde’s failure to give him an answer. After he persisted she asks herself:
If I were to ask you ‘do you love Christ?’ How would that make you feel?
Would you be irritated like Golde? Would you reply ‘Why are you asking me that now? I’ve been a Christian for more years than I can remember. I give regularly. I’m here week after week in this cold church. If that’s not love what is!?’
Would you be hurt like Peter? 'Why are you asking me this, isn’t it obvious, you know that I love Jesus. Is it not obvious by how I live my life? Are you saying that I am not a good Christian? Are you saying I’m a bad person?'
I don’t ask you the question. But Christ does. When we hear the gospel read, whatever he is asking his disciples then, he is asking us now. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me more than…………?’(I leave you to complete the question).
We should take some time to think before we give a proper answer.
Christ on the cross is the greatest declaration of love that there can be. Greater love has no-one than that they give up their life for another. 'See how much I love you', is the message emitted from it.
In our human relationships great declarations of love, are not always necessary, but the assurance of love is needful. Love for another can be displayed in the ordinary tasks of the preparation of a meal, in the washing of clothes, in the cleaning of a house; there is love in any act of self-giving. And Jesus tells us, ‘whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it for me.’
After Golde’s reflection, Tevye asks her hopefully, one last time ‘so you love me?’
‘I suppose I do.’ She replies.
They both conclude:
'It doesn't change a thing